Three Clark University undergraduates returned to campus after a summer conducting research aimed at protecting endangered species, from the Pacific Arctic to Florida’s Gulf Stream waters.
Anthony Himmelberger ’19, Sophie Spiliotopoulos ’20, and Jess Strzempko ’20 received summer research fellowships through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in collaboration with Clark’s Mosakowski Institute for Public Enterprise and George Perkins Marsh Institute.
Below, read more about these Marsh-Mosakowski NOAA Fellows and their experiences.
Himmelberger, an environmental science major, interned at the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in Naples, Fla., assessing loggerhead sea turtle nesting along the Cape Romano beaches. Every morning, Himmelberger, another intern, and two volunteers would patrol around seven islands in Rookery Bay. One would drive the boat while another walked about 4.5 miles of beach looking for sea turtle tracks.
“We would log data and take a GPS point if we found turtle tracks that led to no nest, indicating a ‘false crawl.’ And if we located eggs, we would build a cage around the nest to protect it from predators,” Himmelberger explains. “When the eggs hatched, we excavated them and took a count of how many hatched and didn’t hatch. If some didn’t hatch, we tried to figure out why they didn’t, and then opened up the eggs and saw how far along they were in the development process.”
Thanks to the GIS (geographic information systems) experience he’s gained at Clark, Himmelberger felt prepared to use such applications in the field.
“We used ArcCollector, an extension of ArcGIS, for GPS waypoint data logging,” he says. “Because of my knowledge of GIS, I was able to talk to some of the other researchers at Rookery Bay about GIS and even helped tweak a map or two of theirs.”
The experience has helped Himmelberger figure out what he wants to do after graduation.
“This experience, more than anything, solidified my love of field work,” he says. “After completing the GIS fifth-year program at Clark, I would love to get the chance to do more field work. My experience this summer showed me that GIS isn’t always just a tool used behind a computer, and that wherever I end up, I’ll be more than capable of contributing and thriving.”
To learn more about Himmelberger’s experience, read the Rookery Bay Research Reserve interns’ blog.
Spiliotopoulos, a geography major, worked in Silver Spring, Md., on a project titled “Identifying and Summarizing Research: Marine Mammal Life History Traits.” She researched the “life history” traits — such as diet, habitat, and migration patterns — of marine mammal species in the Pacific Arctic region.
“I completed research on 14 stocks — each species has multiple stocks, one for each area in which it’s found — and created a ‘species profile’ for each, with all the information I found summarized in three to four pages,” Spiliotopoulos says. “These species profiles will be used by experts in the field, who will ‘score’ each stock and determine its vulnerability. These scores will then be used in the Marine Mammal Climate Vulnerability Assessment.”
Spiliotopoulos came to the internship well-prepared with skills she had acquired in a research methods and design class. “I was already quite used to reading long, dense academic articles for our final project, so that made the transition into my everyday work a little easier,” she says.
She learned about the Arctic by taking classes with Karen Frey, associate professor of geography, an expert on polar climate change who was appointed by the National Academy of Sciences to serve on the Marine Working Group of the International Arctic Science Committee The IASC is a non-governmental, international scientific organization that encourages and facilitates collaboration on Arctic research.
In her summer internship, Spiliotopoulos learned more about how climate change is affecting Arctic marine mammals.
“I’m really interested in sea ice and its changing area and extent, and this summer I learned about multiple marine species that rely on that sea ice for their habitat,” she says. “For some of these species, there have already been observed declines in population, which is all the more reason to continue to understand and research this region.”
The internship has led Spiliotopoulos to realize she would like to pursue the fifth-year master’s degree in GIS at Clark.
“I think the most valuable thing I learned from my experience at NOAA is that no one’s path is a straight line,” she says. “You can have a plan for your future, but it’s also important to be open to opportunities that you find along the way.”
Strzempko, an environmental science major, interned for the Atlantic Salmon Ecosystems Research Team under Ruth Haas-Castro, a research fishery biologist at the NOAA Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, Mass.
“I assisted in archival imaging and ageing (determining the age) of Atlantic salmon smolt scales for 2018. Atlantic salmon are called smolts when they leave their home rivers and run out to the ocean for the first time,” she writes. “Additionally, I completed an independent research project assessing variability among smolt scales from the same fish.”
While most of Strzempko’s days were spent in the Image Analysis Lab mounting, imaging, ageing, and measuring Atlantic salmon smolt scales using microscopes and software programs, she had opportunities to escape the lab.
“I got to go on a tour of the Vineyard Sound on a research vessel, the Gloria Michelle, and attend several conferences/workshops at the (University of Rhode Island) Bay campus in Narragansett, which included the summer conference for the southern New England chapter of the American Fisheries Society and a NOAA CoastWatch satellite data course,” she says.
Her internship experience showed Strzempko what it’s like to work as a research scientist, and allowed her to obtain professional and career advice from experts in the fisheries industry.
She also created her first scientific poster, a tool used by researchers to summarize and explain their work. “I’d say creating a scientific poster was my biggest accomplishment at this internship,” she says. “The experience of peer review and editing of the layout and content of the poster was rigorous but ultimately invaluable.”
Although her internship is over, Strzempko is still connecting what she did this summer to what she is doing at Clark.
“I’m currently taking courses like Introduction to Hydrology and Marine Biology that connect to topics from my internship and are providing me with an academic background in the practical skills I gained this summer,” she says. “I also plan to present my research poster in October at Fall Fest, and work with my adviser, Karen Frey, in her Polar Science Research Laboratory at Clark.”